Friday, November 9, 2012

Standard Deviations - Banging Your Head on Some Mad Bugger's Wall

"Standard counts and keeps on countin', and we knows now finding tha trick of what's rotated and lost ain't no easy ride. But that's our cypher, we gotta break it. And there ain't nobody what knows when it comes undone. Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member what it was and can still be...but most of all we 'members counting back-wise from twenty, before the Angels came. And we lights the fires, not just to remember but for all them what turn creatures sideways. 'Cause we knows there comes a night, when they see the distant light of Gatecrash and they'll be comin' home." - Nina Nix, Return to Ravnica: Beyond Thunderdome

Hello everyone and welcome to the latest edition of The Cardboard Witch. As you can tell by the above introduction I'm feeling a little "theatrical" today; don't worry I'm not crazy enough to try to write an entire article in the voice of Savannah Nix. I would however like to address the elephant in the room that nobody else seems to be talking about; the death of Aggro strategies in post-RtR Standard. Let me repeat that for those of you who weren't listening: aggro is dead in Standard. When I say "dead", I do in fact mean kaput, obsolete, roadkill, devoid of spark, promise or life. In short, if you're playing a turn 5 deck that turns creatures sideways in Standard events right now you are literally "dead money" and will be unlikely to win said tournaments. Now before you get upset at me please understand that it brings me no joy to deliver this news. I am a firm believer that a healthy Standard format revolves around having effective aggro, control and mid-range options with a few odd-ball combo decks thrown in for spice. Unfortunately it seems that lately Standard formats rarely actually achieve this sort of balance and in my opinion the post Return to Ravnica format actively discourages/hinders aggro strategies. These are bleak times for weenie rush decks folks and after several weeks of testing I am prepared to state the case against aggro before you today. It's a grim tale but I hope that in the telling I can convince at least some of you out there to stop wasting entry fees on decks that simply cannot win tournaments for you. 

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: Ironically, the death of aggro here in Standard was caused primarily by the most innocuous and traditionally least profitable effect in Magic: the ability to gain life. Historically the refuge of new players, casual multi-player aficionados and the truly desperate; cards that gain life do not have a long history of success in tournament Magic. There have certainly been exceptions to this rule (Kitchen Finks comes to mind) but ultimately the generally held theory that board control is more relevant than your life total has prevailed. After all, if you're trading cards for life that means you aren't trading cards for my cards and sooner or later the monsters I've cast will overwhelm you. The RtR/Innistrad Standard format turns this theory on it's ear however by being absolutely loaded with cards that both gain huge chunks of life and help you establish board control. As an aggro player it can be disheartening to watch your opponent gain 5 life from a single card; depending on the point in the game this likely undoes an entire turn of hard work and gives your opponent time to cast more expensive (and typically superior) cards to thwart you. When this life gain is combined with a kill effect or a reasonable defensive body (again see Finks) the problem becomes more serious; not only are you likely down a turn but you're probably down a card now as well in one way or another. So what happens when your opponent can gain 5 life, Flash a 3/4 flying defender into play and simultaneously create a 3/3 chump blocking token? What about when your opponent can repeatedly trade his worst creatures and tokens for your best creatures while simultaneously gaining life in 6-12 point chunks turn after turn? How exactly do you "race" against a deck that can easily gain 60+ life over the course of a single, moderately long game? These are rhetorical questions folks because the answers are as plain as day to anyone playing Standard right now: you get blown out, you lose and you can't (respectively).

Of course there are other reasons for the demise of aggro here in Standard besides the preponderance of awesome life gain effects; we'll cover some of those later in the article. For the moment however let's take a closer look at the incidental life gain cards that literally "ruinate" aggressive strategies in this format:

The Unholy Trinity:  If you've been playing aggro in Standard recently I'm willing to bet that your least favorite turn 1 play in the format is "Temple Garden into play tapped, go". The reason for this of course is that if your opponent is skipping his first turn and playing a G/W dual there's a very good chance he's playing 4 copies each of Centaur Healer, Thragtusk and Restoration Angel. Taken individually each of these cards represents a fairly formidable roadblock against aggressive strategies. At 3/3 for a converted mana cost of 3 it's probably fair to question why Centaur Healer gains a full 3 life when it enters the battlefield. In a world of 2/2 Zombies and 2/1 Knights the Healer makes a habit of undoing more than a single attack's worth of work while simultaneously threatening to devour a weenie on each subsequent swing. Moving up the curve we get to everyone's (least) favorite card in Standard; the nigh ubiquitous Thragtusk. Better writers than I have already devoted many paragraphs to detailing exactly why 'Tusk is pretty stupid in Standard so I'll skip it here. What I can say is that for an aggro deck the 5 points worth of life gain is significantly less painful than the body that trades off for one of your best creatures; twice. Finally, even without a good target for her come into play trigger Restoration Angel does a pretty good job of ambushing small dudes in the middle of combat. At 3/4 she ranks as one of the better front line blockers here in Standard and both Flash and Flying are extremely relevant to her performance in this role.  Of course when you combine these 3 cards together in the same deck, all hell breaks loose. Just 4 Healers and 4 Tusks alone represent 9 blocking bodies and 32 points worth of life gain but by adding the Angel to the mix you get free blocks/tokens, free ambush kills and double dipping rights on the lifegain effects. To say that this causes "problems" for aggro strategies would be like saying "that iceberg caused problems for the Titanic"; this isn't a mismatch, it's a massacre in favor of the G/W player. Perhaps most disturbingly the mana costs on these 3 creatures involve a total of 2 green and 2 white mana, which in turn makes it criminally easy for an absolutely huge number of decks in this format to include all 3 cards.

Punched in the Junk: While the 3 cards discussed above are certainly the most popular incidental life gain effects here in Standard they are by no means the only, or even the best such effects. As games drag on and mana/creatures become more plentiful this environment provides a whole new set of problems for aggro decks in the form of mass life gain effects. In particular, three extremely popular cards have appeared to choke the last breath from aggro strategies in post-RtR Standard: Azorius Charm, Sphinx's Revelation and Vault of the Archangel. Of these 3 cards the Charm is probably the most frustrating simply because it can be used as a removal spell in the early game against aggro strategies. As we discussed in my last article there are a number of benefits to be gained from "topping" an early aggressive creature with this card and as such it represents a legitimate obstacle to any beatdown plan in Standard. Of course, once our opponent does play a few creatures the mass-lifelink mode of this card typically puts the final nails in aggro's coffin; it's pretty hard to finish off a deck that's attacking for more damage than you can while simultaneously gaining life in 8-15 point bursts. At the other end of the spectrum is Sphinx's Revelation which is thankfully awkward and expensive if you're going to gain any significant amount of life from casting it. Unfortunately it also lets the caster draw a card for each point of life he's gaining and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that some of those cards will probably be good against aggro. It's also an Instant; just in case potential combat damage math wasn't hard enough already on aggro players in this format. Probably the worst part of facing down this card with an aggro deck however is that your opponent will typically cast it just before you are about to finish him off and right after both of your hands have drained extremely low. Let's just say that this is pretty demoralizing and significantly reduces aggro's chances of actually winning that game. While both of the above cards seem a little unfair when you're trying to beat down with weenies, they are at least Instants that must be actually cast and therefore "used up" to cause the aggro player harm. The same can not be said for our final "junk punch" card; Vault of the Archangel. I'm not a card designer by any stretch folks but a tiny part of me wonders how anyone could possibly think it was a good idea to print a land that can potentially give all of your creatures Lifelink turn after turn. Yes, it costs 5 mana to do so and that is not an insignificant investment but when you have the potential to gain upwards of 15 life per turn it seems like a relative bargain doesn't it? This is all besides the point that the silly thing actually gives out Deathtouch as well which makes it one of the premier defensive cards in the format even before you factor in gaining rivulets of life. While a mid-game Az Charm or Sphinx's Revelation probably means the aggro deck loses, an active Vault (with creatures to affect) most definitely ensures that it will.

Blindside Pressure: To be honest the above 6 cards alone are probably good enough reasons to avoid aggro altogether here in Standard. It's never a good idea to fight uphill battles all day during a Magic tournament and the preponderance of quality Bant, Junk and even plain old Selesnya Midrange decks in the format virtually force aggro to do just that. Sadly however there are actually a number of other, less popular life gain cards that still qualify as "playable" (or better) here in Standard. In my mind the best example of this is probably Trostani, Selesnya's Voice. While you are unlikely to find Trostani in a top tier Standard deck at this point, she's still a 2/5 body that can potentially gain massive hunks of life over the course of a single game. She's got 5 toughness, works well with tokens and makes it extremely easy to outrace other creature based decks if they can't kill her. As a result, she's at least reasonably popular with the FNM set and it's never too shocking when your opponent drops a turn 4-5 Trostani at smaller events. Another card that works well in the lifegain package and has the potential to cause aggro strategies serious grief is the casual/Comander favorite, Deadeye Navigator. On the downside the Navigator is 6 mana and doesn't actually have a printed lifegain effect. If you can Soulbond him with a Centaur Healer or a Thragtusk however, the situation quickly becomes all upside as his 1U flicker effect theoretically allows near-infinate potential life gains. Other quality cards that randomly provide some sort of life gain effect include Huntsmaster of the Fells, Vampire Nighthawk, Sorin's Vampire tokens, Tribute to Hunger, Deathrite Shaman and Griselbrand. Heck, I've even played games against cards like Nearheath Pilgrim and Gnaw to the Bone in post-RtR Standard. While these cards are certainly less popular than the previous 6, the simple truth is that they are out there and each of them represent another strike against the aspiring aggro player.

"Sweep the leg Johnny": Of course not all of aggro's problems in this Standard format revolve around life gain; it's certainly fair to say that playing in a format with two Wrath of God effects doesn't help either. For those of you clutching your Lilianna of the Dark Realms, hoping for a Mutilate revival I'm talking about the wonder-twin tandem of Supreme Verdict and Terminus. Trying to play around as many as 8 potential boardsweepers while maintaining a reasonable clock is a nightmare for aggro decks facing down Hallowed Fountains. The only real mitigating factor here is that because many decks in the format can shrug off a Supreme Verdict you might only face them in games 2 and 3 from the sideboard. There is no relief from Terminus for the aggro player however and you can firmly expect to see 3 maindeck copies and a 4th from the board if you're trying to beat down against Azorius in Standard. As if this situation wasn't miserable enough; there are also 3 key one-sided boardsweep effects that see significant play here in Standard. Of the three, Cyclonic Rift probably represents the least danger due to it's cost and because theoretically the aggro deck can just recast it's creatures. The fact that it's instant and only requires one Blue mana however is a fairly serious issue; frankly it's not that difficult to get to 7 mana against aggro if you've gained 18-25 life along the way. Mizzium Mortars is also expensive at 6 mana and has the added problem of requiring RRR to Overload; which adds potential turns to it's casting time. If your opponent does survive to cast it however, 4 damage across the board is usually more than enough to wipe out most aggressive create bases. Finally of course, the most dangerous one-sided boardsweep effect for aggro in this format is a "miracle'd" Bonfire of the Damned. With as little as four available mana a deck running Bonfire can completely wipe the aggro deck's board, throw a lightning bolt at the pilot's face and free up all of his monsters for a savage attack. Naturally of course there are ways to attack some of these cards (Gravecrawler, Vampire Aristocrat, Geralf's Messenger, Wolfir Avenger and Strangleroot Geist) but the simple truth is that no aggro deck in the format can play around all of them. In fact, I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find any aggro deck in Standard that can play around Terminus and Cyclonic Rift.

The Land of Bad Math: Hopefully by now you are starting to understand why it's simply not a good idea to play aggro in this format. On one hand aggro decks are forced to rapidly advance their board state to attempt to "outrun" near infinite life gain effects in Standard. On the other hand if they dump out their hand to accomplish this there are multiple boardsweep effects waiting to punish them for doing so. Further complicating matters are the sheer number of potential 2 for 1 cards aggro decks must contend with in this format. While the number of cards in Standard that match this description is somewhat staggering, the 3 most common problems for aggro decks in this format are Detention Sphere, Sever the Bloodline and Lingering Souls. Sphere is frustrating because it's an exile effect (negates regenerate, indestructible or undying) and because it actively discourages casting multiple copies of your best creatures. When your deck doesn't draw cards and wants to vomit it's hand onto the table as quickly as possible, this can easily lead to quick blowouts unless the aggro player is extremely cautious. Sever the Bloodline presents virtually all the same problems as Detention Sphere except it's all but guaranteed to provide a 2 for 1 effect in a long game due to it's flashback. On the upside for aggro, 4 mana for a kill spell isn't the greatest deal and in the absence of other answers your opponent may not survive long enough to hit 7 mana and flash it back. The most annoying card of the lot however is probably Lingering Souls, which for 5 mana mortgaged over 2 turns provides a staggering 4 flying chump blockers. The only way around this card for most aggro decks is the Trample Trait, Blood Artist or a top of the curve Thundermaw Hellkite. Naturally, when combined with Vault of the Archangel this card goes from "extremely annoying" to "legitimately game breaking" awful fast if you're trying to throw guys sideways into the spirit tokens.

Show Me the Money: I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "well that all sounds very scary Nina but people can't run all of these cards in the same deck and they can't draw them every game. I'll be fine".  Unfortunately I have bad news for you folks; yes they actually can run all these cards in one deck and until Gatecrash at least it is highly unlikely that aggro will be "fine". The existence of RtR shocklands, Innistrad buddy duals and cards like Farseek make it easy to build a variety of powerful, greedy (3 colors with lots of double mana symbols) mid-range and control decks. When Blue/White control decks have absolutely no problem selling out for Pillar of Flame and Bonfire of the Damned you know we've gone past concepts like "colors" and "mana restrictions". In an effort to highlight exactly what a good mid-range deck can do to aggro in Standard, I've built an extremely simple Junk (G/W/B) deck to share with you today. I may or may not have also heard a rumor that more people will read your article if you provide a decklist :) :

Welcome to the Machine - Junk Mid-Range w/Rites

Creatures - 18: 

4x Centaur Healer
4x Restoration Angel
3x Thragtusk
2x Sigarda, Host of Herons
2x Armada Wurm
3x Angel of Serenity

Spells - 18:

4x Grisly Salvage
4x Mulch
2x Farseek
4x Lingering Souls
4x Unburial Rites

Lands - 24:

4x Temple Garden
4x Overgrown Tomb
4x Woodland Cemetary
4x Sunpetal Grove
2x Isolated Chapel
4x Forest
2x Vault of the Archangel

Sideboard - 15:

3x Intangible Virtue
2x Sundering Growth
2x Oblivion Ring
3x Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
2x Sever the Bloodline
3x Entreat the Angels

Analysis: Conceptually this deck is designed to be a G/W Midrange deck that uses it's graveyard and Unburial Rites to either accelerate towards a win or finish off a staggering opponent in the late game. In this context it becomes very important that the deck be able to reasonably "hard-cast" every creature in the deck while simultaneously looking for opportunities to take advantage of it's graveyard. This prevents the deck from ever being dependent on Unburial Rites and makes it very easy to board them out in game two if we're expecting graveyard hate. In this case I've chosen to fill the void with a more token based strategy but this is very much a personal preference. You could probably go a number of different directions with this sideboard so long as the chosen cards adequately replaced the Rites you may board out.  More to the point of our discussion however this deck absolutely steamrolls aggro and it does so without running a significant number of cards that are simply bad in other match-ups. While it's fair to say Centaur Healer doesn't shine in every game, cards like Restoration Angel, Lingering Souls, Thragtusk and Vault of the Archangels perform admirably against a wide variety of opponents. Looking back on our previous discussion it should be fairly easy to see how this build interweaves an absolutely massive number of "aggro-killing" cards effortlessly into a highly focused/structured deck design. While I haven't had the opportunity to enter a tournament with this deck a few days of online practice and a quick scan around the internet/my FNM confirms that many other people are exploring these same card combinations successfully.

Well folks, once again that's just about all the time we have for today. At this point I feel that if I haven't convinced you that aggro is just a bad deck choice by now there may be no hope. For reasons beyond my comprehension there will always be a certain segment of the Magic community who simply cannot resist the seductive allure of curving out at 3, dumping your hand and turning little dudes sideways. In these dark times I can only wish these poor unfortunate souls godspeed and the ability to topdeck multiple "threaten" effects. For those of you who can count past 3 however there remains hope; Standard is home to a number of solid mid-range, token beatdown and control decks right now. It's time to embrace your inner Timmy, break out your trade binders and release your 4, 5 and 6 drop rares and mythics. This format has become a battle of colossal monsters and earth shattering sorcery; you don't want to be the guy who shows up with a pack of 1/1 goblins. Remember gang, big monsters always need lunch.

- nina


  1. How slow will the format get? Can I win by playing seven mana sorceries yet?

    1. Yes but probably not "naked"? There's still just enough aggro out there that you run the risk of being turn 5'd against "bad" decks if you don't take some precautions.

      There's also a significant amount of countermagic, thou people are starting to lean towards Essence Scatter so that helps.

      This is definitely a "go bigger" format tho so as long as you have SOME sort of plan for getting to 7 mana I say go for it.


  2. Well, this might explain how my Aggro decks keep ending up Mid-range recently.

    1. Yeah, you can definitely still beatdown; but you're curving into 4-5 and even 6-7 now or you're playing "too fair" and losing. At least that's how I see it.

  3. By the way folks:

    A friend of mine on Twitter has been testing this deck since I posted it; he assures me that you *can* cut 1x Sigarda and 1x Armada Wurm for your choice of Griselbrand and Craterhoof Behemoth. I'm not a huge fan of either choice but apparently it's not affecting the deck's win percentage very much at all.

    Happy hunting.